The Cyclone at the Centre of a Debut Novel
By Susanne Carter
I love debut novels. I look at first novels as an opportunity to form new relationships with writers I may not know yet and experience the world through different perspectives. And I’ve often found that first novels are many writers’ best works.
Arif Anwar is the first writer I’ve read who was born in Bangladesh and The Storm is a masterful debut written in beautiful, poetic prose. In this article, I critique the novel. In the Writers’ Notes I provide insights into writing a first novel, gleaned from interviews with the author.
The Storm begins and ends in 1970 when the devastating Bhola Cyclone strikes East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), wiping out more than a half million people. The circular nature of these storms also provided the inspiration for the structure of the novel. The nonlinear narrative moves back and forth in time, place, and character, spanning five countries over six decades. The interrelated characters face numerous conflicts, both personal and political, some imposed upon them by setting and some of their own making. Their connections to one another are revealed in various and often inferred bits and pieces throughout the novel, lending it an air of mystery that is intriguing.
Anwar explains how he constructed the novel:
The book is structured for circularity and disorientation, in some ways mimicking a cyclone, with a “build-up,” an “eye”, and the “surge”… it was a challenge to myself to see if I could pull it off. The risk with this design is that it calls for faith on the part of the reader to forge through the initial disorientation before reaching the reward of all the pieces coming together in the second half. In that way, the structure of the novel creates its own momentum.
A primary strength of the novel is its characterizations. Anwar has said he was tired of reading books that “present people of colour as victims of circumstances, and refugees and only in a relational way to the West.” As he wrote The Storm, he said, “I told myself over and over again that I really don’t want to write characters like that, where they are some sort of objects of pity.” Anwar avoided this pitfall, he said, by doing “thorough research from authentic sources” and approaching their development “with great empathy, respect, and understanding.” The result is a collage of British, American, Indian, Japanese, Burmese, and Bangladeshi characters who are realistic and believable, not stereotyped objects of pity. An example is Honufa, whom we meet in the first chapter:
Three decades of hard living have whittled away feminine softness from her face, deep-etched the lines around her eyes, thinned her lips to less than ideal for a woman of Bengal, given her jaw a square and mannish cast; Honufa is not beautiful, but she is strong; at five and a half feet, taller than any other woman in the seaside village she calls home. Her shoulders are wide, her hands calloused from the miles of ropes and nets that have passed through them over the years from the hills of coconuts she has husked.
The length of tree shadows and height of the sun reckon the hour for her, tell her that it is time to visit the communal well to draw water, an act she is resigned to complete in solitude. In the first years, she held hope that the weight of others’ scrutiny, the sting of their judgment, would become easier to bear. But it never did. (pp. 5-7)
While squeezing a potentially epic-size novel into a very readable 300-page one, Anwar manages to explore a number of world issues, including class and religious discrimination, partition, immigration, war, literacy, poverty, and loyalty to country. We come away with a better understanding of how events, both natural and manmade, have influenced many people’s lives and helped to shape our world.
These suggestions for writers are based on published interviews with Arif Anwar concerning the writing of The Storm.
- Write and rewrite daily.
Like most published authors, Anwar advises any aspiring writer to write daily and revise often. Twice during the writing of The Storm, he said, he rewrote the novel from scratch, removing some characters and expanding the roles of others. It took five years to complete.
- Balance writing and research.
Writing a book such as The Storm that covers decades of events requires historical research to ensure accuracy. To avoid getting bogged down in historical minutiae, Anwar said he did his research “on the fly” as he wrote, rather than researching the history before beginning to write a scene or chapter. That helped to keep his focus on the characters instead of the events. “I wanted to intrigue readers about historical events,” said Anwar, “as opposed to giving them blow by blow reenactments.”
- Develop believable characters.
Anwar avoided creating stereotypes of the ten primary characters and several secondary ones in the novel by thoroughly researching each one and recognizing their humanness. “Regardless of race or class,” Anwar said, “we all have the same foibles and can make the same mistakes. That’s something I’m trying to achieve with the characters in this book.”
- Experiment with structure.
Anwar based the structure of The Storm on the cyclone that begins and ends the novel. The narrative blows like a strong wind from country to country and skips back and forth in time, leaving pieces of information that tie together the interwoven lives of the characters like a complex puzzle. Anwar admits this structure was risky for himself to write and for readers to decipher, but it helps to distinguish the novel from more traditional ones written with a more linear and less novel approach.
What is your favourite novel by a debut author?